West dressed

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Ruth Singer shows how Vivienne Westwood fits historical style into contemporary fashion

Vivienne Westwood is often called one of the most innovative of British designers. She has been responsible for an astonishing number of enduring and pervasive fashions, initially with punk and later with underwear as outerwear and the eccentric British style. This gown, from her 1996 collection, is based on mid-18th century Rococo-style gowns, known as sack-back, with voluminous skirts and excessive amounts of fabric, combined with a tightly controlled upper body.

It was inspired by the French painter Jean-Antione Watteau (1684-1721), who specialised in romantic depictions of the wealthy at play in fabulous dresses. The sense of over-the-top idealisation of style in his paintings must have appealed to Westwood as much as the dresses they depict. Several of Watteau's paintings are in the Wallace Collection in London, one of Westwood's favourite sources of inspiration. For the clothes themselves, the Victoria and Albert Museum is her greatest mine of information. From one side the gown appears to be quite a historically accurate representation of a sack-back dress, but in true Westwood style, all is not what it seems. On the left side the gown is strapless, figure-hugging, and contemporary with cheeky bows like butterflies flying up and across the bodice, while viewed from the right, the cape-like back flows into a generous train just like the dresses of Watteau's ladies.

Creativity and the expression of her attitude to the world is central to Westwood's designs, mixing British eccentricities with upfront sexuality.

Her interest in the manipulation and exploitation of the human form, particularly in women's wear, is often shown in exaggerated shapes such as bustles. By the mid-1980s she was famous for using tweed and tartan fabrics as well as styles and silhouettes of historic fashion. She excels at both tailoring and romantic evening wear, epitomised in this ball gown of 1996.

The dress is a mixture of femininity and romanticism with hidden strength and more than a hint of raunchiness. Her 1982 autumn winter collection was the first to exploit underwear as outerwear and before long the corset became a key favourite of the Westwood look.

She enjoyed playing with the images of sexuality and power a corset conjures up. She is probably single-handedly responsible for the transformation of the corset from a symbol of female repression to one of power and sexual freedom. The debates that raged during the 1980s and 90s about her highly provocative designs could be useful food for thought for students. In just 20 years opinions have shifted about what is acceptable for women to wear. At the time this dress was created, the prevailing fashion was grunge and heroin-chic - a very anti-feminine style. Despite this, Westwood blithely continued to design clothes which she felt made women strong and fabulous.

Unlike most designers, she was entirely self taught, having started as a primary teacher. In the 1970s, she and then-partner, entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, ran a series of clothes shops in London catering for the developing punk market. Their bondage trousers and use of tartan are enduring fashion statements of a subculture still echoed in youth fashions of the 21st century. Her later collections, first with McLaren and, from 1983, alone, soon showed her love of reinvention of historic dress and playfulness with the idea of Britishness.

Westwood's reinterpretation of historical dress is her greatest skill: she has done it for longer and better than any other designer. She once said that there has never been so little respect for history. Do students agree with her? Does it matter? Is the past a resource for how we live our lives or just how we design our clothes? Show students the dress on the mannequin. Can they guess its date? Show them the model in it. How do their opinions and reactions differ when they realise it's a modern dress?

There is no shortage of debate about what fashion says about women and what effect the media has on body image. Students could compare opinions expressed today with those of earlier periods. It used to be virtually impossible to divide women's history from fashion history. Is that still true today? Ask students to consider how much of contemporary fashion and design is new and how much comes from the past.

Think about other ways in which designers seek inspiration and how they choose materials. For this dress, Westwood has chosen historically accurate fabrics, the two-coloured silk reflecting light and rustling like the originals. The dress would be completely different if she had used a synthetic jersey in a graphic print, for instance. What does it say about our society that we still love ballgowns even though we mostly wear jeans? Who wears clothes like this? Is the fashion industry a modern phenomenon or does it have a history of its own? It is well documented that the worst parts of the fashion industry are often responsible for exploitation and environmental damage around the world. Consider this in context with the high-fashion glamorous world epitomised by this kind of dress.

Ruth Singer is an education officer at the Vamp;A

Vivienne Westwood 1941-

Vivienne Westwood was born in Derbyshire. Her family moved to London, where she tried art school and then primary teaching. She went on to become the seamstress of punk fashion in the 1970s and by 1990 was British Designer of the Year.

She was awarded the OBE in 1991.

* Linda Evangelista wearing Westwood's "Watteau" gown. This dress (T438:1 1996) is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum Fashion Gallery. A retrospective of Vivienne Westwood's work is at the museum until July 11.


Vivienne Westwood by Claire Wilcox is available from the Vamp;A, pound;30.



KS2 Create a piece of clothing using paper and material. Experiment with shapes and materials to make different shapes on the body.

KS 3-4 Look into how designers use history. Consider furniture, graphic design interiors and objects as well as fashion in your local museum or the Vamp;A.

Design a product that uses historical precedents, but is not a pastiche or copy. Experiment with materials to produce different effects for clothing.

Why do we use certain fabrics? How can materials such as leather and synthetics be used differently from silk or cotton.


KS 3 The role of the media in society.

Does the fashion industry cause eating disorders?

Organise a debate about the issues, particularly for young women bombarded with highly sexual imagery of women.

KS 3-4 Explore the use of sexualised imagery in fashion through the past 300 years. Is it a new phenomenon?


KS 3 The global fashion industry.

Westwood is a great supporter of British fabrics, yet her clothes are made in Italy and shown in Paris and Milan. What does this say about the fashion industry and the UK's place in it? Research whether other British designers are supported in the UK.

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